Outdoor Articles

Late Summer Caribou

by Pursue The Outdoors on December 12th, 2006 in Bow Hunting

Not many events would justify me missing the opening weekend of archery elk season. Hunting Barren Ground Caribou north of the Brooks Range in Alaska was one such event.

Joined by my brother Billy and good friend Dave Chapman, we decided it would be quite the adventure to experience the land of the never-ending muskeg bogs and wide-open tundra in search of the largest antlered specie of caribou. Although we were there to hunt, I wasn’t prepared for the other sites that the Arctic would provide.

The weather for 9 out of 10 days consisted of freezing rain, sleet, snow, harsh biting winds, and sub-freezing temperatures. The scenery was nothing like I imagined. Driving over the Brooks Range down onto the North Slope, I was witness to moose, bear, sheep and more caribou than I could ever hope for. The landscape was incredible, from towering mountains to wild, unforgiving tundra masses that disappeared into the horizon.

The hunt included many blown stalks, a couple of errant arrows, and a few days of limited caribou sightings. Even with the large herd sizes, the frequency of caribou encounters, and the total caribou out on the North Slope, getting one on the ground did prove to be a challenge. Whether it was the fog and not being able to spot them, the swirling wind and numerous eyes, the final “close the distance” stalk, or even in my case an arrow that missed it’s mark, we experienced it all.

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It wasn’t until day five that I was able to connect with a really nice bull. Dave had an opportunity at the exact same bull just the evening before. Dave’s encounter took place on our side of the river, and he watched the bull cross and head for a small island. As darkness approached, we took off for camp and devised a plan for the following morning, which included the use of our very small Zodiac skiff to haul three of us across the freezing river.

The next morning, and after careful river navigation by our experienced oarsman Dave, we finally made it across the river. Dave and Billy split off in one direction, and I started downriver in the other. As I tiptoed my way up the river, I looked toward the middle of the island and spotted the unmistakable antler configuration of a mature bull caribou. He was bedded down in a soft dirt depression. I could tell his antlers were facing away from me, and as luck would have it, I was heading directly into a steady wind. With the soft dirt, great wind, and freezing rain, the stalking conditions were excellent. I took off my backpack, and with him in the depression, I basically just walked briskly right to where his antlers were. I walked until I was 25 yards from the bedded bull, still not being able to see his head or body.

After a short wait, the bull started to stir, and he slowly stood up. At this time my release was already snapped on my string, and all I had to do was get the bow back without a bunch of movement. Being only 25 yards from him, this was tough to do. He stood up, and, as scripted, stepped to a perfect broadside position. I yarded my bow back and settled in.

I watched my arrow zip through him about the mid-ship level, a few inches behind the shoulder. I knew he was mine. His death sprint took him up the bank out of the depression and promptly into the freezing river. He fortunately was able to swim away from the cut bank, deep-water side of the river and make it all the way to the shallow side before dying. Billy and Dave witnessed the action, and as the bull started floating down river, I yelled for them to retrieve the raft, not knowing how well caribou float and how far downstream he would go. Thankfully, his antlers caught on some rocks, and after a brief 60-yard float he came to a stop.

This Alaskan adventure wasn’t simply about the hunt and killing of a caribou bull. It was much more than that. The chance for me to stand outside my tent at 2:00 a.m. and watch The Northern Lights dance across the sky was worth the trip in and of itself. Alaska is truly The Last Frontier. One I hope to explore again in the near future.

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